National Archives Expands Digital Classroom

Lee Ann Potter, February 1999

Nearly three years ago, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) added a new pedagogical tool to its web site for the educational community. It was aptly named the Digital Classroom. Visitors to this site today (at http://www.nara.gov/education) will find that its pages have been richly expanded.

NARA's education specialists have been working in successful partnership with educators across the curriculum for more than 20 years to promote the use of primary sources in the classroom and to demonstrate active-learning techniques to help bring documents to life for students at every level. As curriculum needs, teaching strategies, and technologies have changed over the years, these specialists and educators have developed a wide variety of products and services for the educational community, including documentary publications, "teaching with documents" features for journals, workshops at professional meetings, and support for National History Day.

Not surprisingly, many users of NARA's traditional materials have also been identified as high-profile Internet users. According to the ninth WWW User Survey conducted April 10–May 15, 1998, by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphic, Visualization, and Usability Center, one out of every four visitors to the Internet is either an educator or a student. They are seeking curriculum ideas, research tools, information on publications, opportunities for professional development, and engaging experiences.

The National Archives' response to this search is the Digital Classroom. This section of the archives web site is designed specifically for educators and students at all levels. It features four main sections: Primary Sources and Activities, General and National History Day Research, Pub-lications, and Professional Development.

Primary Sources and Activities

The first section, entitled Primary Sources and Activities, includes an article describing the value of learning "history in the raw." It emphasizes how teaching with primary documents personalizes individuals and events for students at every level and promotes development of their critical thinking skills, which mirrors one of the important goals articulated in the National Standards for History.

This section of the Digital Classroom is particularly helpful to educators who actively seek materials to reinforce these skills. Here they will find online lessons developed by education specialists that feature archival documents and focus on subjects generally taught in United States history and government classes. The units are arranged chronologically and include such topics as the Zimmermann Telegram transmitted during World War I, FDR's attempt to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court during the 1930s, posters from World War II, and the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Additional units are added each month.

Accompanying each document are historical background and activities correlated to the National Standards and suited for crosscurricular use. The lessons offer a variety of teaching suggestions that move from the simple to the more sophisticated (for example, vocabulary, reading for the main idea, observing the document's physical features, analyzing the document's content, and encouraging further study). All aspects of a lesson, including the digitized images of original documents, are designed for easy downloading, printing, and photocopying for classroom use. Educators and students are also encouraged to provide links to these items from their own web sites and to incorporate items from the Digital Classroom into their own electronic presentations and projects.

The document analysis worksheets developed by the National Archives education staff are also available in this section. They provide guidelines for learning from various types of archival materials, including posters, photographs, maps, cartoons, audio and video recordings, written documents, and artifacts.

Visitors who wish to have access to additional primary sources can link to other sections of the archives web site, such as the presidential libraries and the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). NAIL is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of National Archives holdings across the country. Researchers can use NAIL to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and to retrieve digital copies of select textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics. Currently, NAIL contains more than 100,000 digital copies of historical documents.

General and National History Day Research

The general and National History Day research section of the Digital Classroom gives students both a general introduction to how to do research at the National Archives and an opportunity to learn to use the NARA web site for conducting online research. The site can be especially helpful to the National History Day contestants who contact NARA staff for assistance. Archivists receive excellent research inquiries from some of the more than 500,000 students nationwide who participate every year; but they are unable to help others whose requests are either incomplete or ask the impossible (for example, "everything" NARA has on a broad subject, or information on subjects unrelated to the work of the federal government). The step-by-step activities in this section of the Digital Classroom ask students to refer to the online Guide to Federal Records, Guide to the Records of the Senate, or Guide to the Records of the House of Representatives to gather information related to their research topics. These exercises help students learn about the holdings of the National Archives, offer instructions on how to conduct research, and suggest ways to compose inquiries that will generate helpful responses. At the end of the exercises, students are advised to incorporate appropriate information about the records into their requests to NARA's archivists for further information and materials.

Publications and Professional Development

The publications and professional development sections describe educational materials and opportunities available through the National Archives. Ordering instructions for educational publications, such as NARA's best-selling Teaching with Documents, volumes one and two, are available online. Also available is information on instructional workshops, including NARA's summer institute "Primarily Teaching: Original Documents and Classroom Strategies" and sessions conducted at professional meetings by NARA's education specialists. Visitors are alerted to where and when workshops will be conducted in their geographical areas as well as to how they can participate in the on-site institute.

Ongoing Site Development

In 1997 the Digital Classroom was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MCI Foundation, and the Council for Great Cities Schools as one of the best sites on the Internet for education in the humanities. The National Archives is proud of this recognition and is equally proud to make materials from the Digital Classroom available through a new interagency web site, Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE). Designed for teachers, students, and parents, FREE serves as the online gateway to educational resources offered by more than 30 federal agencies. It can be accessed at http://www.ed.gov/free.

In 1999 dozens of lessons and student activities related specifically to constitutional issues will be added to the Digital Classroom. These materials will be created by members of the Constitution Community, a partnership between National Archives staff and classroom teachers made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the Government Information Technology Services Board Innovation Fund, and administered by the General Services Administration.

From the beginning, the Digital Classroom has been developed in response to the needs of the educational community, being adapted along the way to reflect evolving educational uses of the Internet and to provide educators and students with online access to effective learning tools and teaching methodologies. Educators and other visitors are invited to send comments and questions to staff about the Digital Classroom and NARA's other educational programs through e-mail addressed to education@arch1.nara.gov.

—Lee Ann Potter is an education specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.